Epiphany 8A / Proper 3A
February 21, 2011
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
Unexpected twists arrest our attention. How often haven’t we seen a movie advertised as worth seeing because, according to the promotional ad, “You won’t believe how it ends!” or “The conclusion will leave you breathless!” Some years ago the popular movie The Sixth Sense shocked viewers around the world with an ending that retrospectively changed the entire movie they had just spent two hours watching. Even jokes are funny because the punchline is something unexpected.
Matthew 6 has its own arresting twist at the end. Jesus had just spent several minutes sketching out in lyric language a life of calm repose and trust. “Don’t worry,” Jesus said over and again. “Don’t be anxious about food, drink, or clothing. Your heavenly Father will take care of everything you need. Be calm! Be happy! Put anxiety aside in favor of trusting your Father for every last thing you need. Don’t get into a knot about tomorrow–God is already up ahead of you and will take care of tomorrow.” It’s all wonderful stuff. Indeed, this is hands-down one of the most famous passages in the entire New Testament. When you add up all of Jesus’ words here, you do indeed arrive at a portrait of calm.
But that’s why verse 34 is properly startling. Because in essence what Jesus ends up saying is along the lines of, “Therefore, don’t worry about tomorrow. Just let tomorrow worry about itself. And anyway, my friends, today life is bad enough as it is.”
What did he just say?! After all these sunny promises about God’s provision for our lives we end with a blunt admission that we are sunk neck-deep in troubles already?! This is not exactly what you thought our Lord would say. If anything, you would have expected to hear something along the lines of “Don’t worry about tomorrow because it will be as chock full of blessing as today already is.” You might have thought Jesus would say, “Don’t fret tomorrow because it will be as sunny and wonderful as today.” But no, that’s not what he says at all. He says not to worry about tomorrow because there is plenty of troubling stuff going on already now.
What a marvelous realist Jesus was! Somehow he was able to pivot from saying “Trust in the Lord with all your heart” to saying “Life is often difficult” without missing a beat and without, apparently, seeing any contradiction between the two statements. Mostly, however, we have a difficult time holding such things in tension. Life is either good or it’s bad but we struggle titanically to wrap our minds around the idea that life can be good even when it is undeniably bad. Yet here is our Lord Jesus encouraging ardent trust in our heavenly Father even though he does not, in the end, deny that the circumstances in which we need to nourish such trust can be tough.
Again, it is an unexpected conclusion. Yet it is finally a hopeful one, too. Why? Because it tells us that we can seek first the kingdom of God, we can trust our heavenly Father for every good thing even, or maybe it’s especially, on those days when we feel harried and pressed and distracted and maybe even troubled. And here’s another hopeful thing: being harried and pressed and distracted and troubled does not mean that we have fallen out of our Father’s loving hands.
I don’t know about you, but if I thought that the only time I could serve God was when absolutely everything in my life was perfect, I’d wonder about how I could ever serve my God. If I thought that I could pursue the kingdom only on days when I could devote my attention 110% to all things spiritual, I’d wonder if I could ever seek first the kingdom. If I thought that the only way to be certain that I am still in the care of my heavenly Father was when every conceivable need in my life was satisfied to the full, I’d wonder how much God ever cares for me.
But no, Jesus says. Let’s be realists and let’s be honest: most days are troubling and troublesome in one way or another. Things are not perfect. Life is not calm. The pace of our working life is not some vision of an eternal Sabbath. Some days we wonder how we’ll make ends meet. Some nights we flop into bed and are chagrined to realize we went the whole day having prayed almost not at all. Today has enough bad stuff as it is, Jesus said, and each of us knows deep in our bones that a truer word was never spoken.
Nevertheless, Jesus says, those are the same days when you can trust that your heavenly Father is well aware of what you need. Those are the same days when you can seek first the kingdom and its righteous, good way to conduct yourself. The life of discipleship and prayer does not take place outside of the hurly-burly everyday nature of our lives but smack within all that occupies us, all keeps us hopping, and yes all that even drives us a little nuts sometimes. How eminently practical. How eminently true to life. How eminently hopeful, therefore.
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
How should Christians pray? What does one properly bring to speech before God? Earlier in this same chapter of Matthew we were taught to begin, “Our Father in heaven,” as a way to direct our attention to the heavenly majesty and almighty power of God and of our Lord Jesus who now sits at God’s right hand as the ascended King of kings and Lord of lords. The opening of the Lord’s Prayer, in other words, gives us a mighty big frame of reference. We live profoundly terrestrial, earthy lives. All our needs and wants arise from the context of life on planet Earth. But those needs are attended to not by some local official but by a God whose glory spans the cosmos and beyond.
You can’t approach a lofty God like that in some casual way. You don’t pretend for one moment that his thoughts are necessarily your thoughts. In fact, were it not for Jesus’ warm invitation to approach this God and then also freely to call him “Father,” you might never dare to try such a thing. But that is the wonderful paradox or juxtaposition of the gospel: we serve a galactic God of glory whose sheer bigness and grandeur we never deny for one moment. Yet despite all that is overwhelmingly majestic about God, we believe he sees us right here on this tiny piece of cosmic real estate we call the Earth. We believe he knows each one of us and calls us by name. And so we trust that when Jesus says our Father in heaven knows what we need here on earth, he means what he says and it inspires us to pray from the context of our ordinary, day-to-day life.
We pray from the context of our Monday mornings and our Thursday afternoons and we pray for the things we need on those same days, too. In the past we have noted that this is one of the things that distinguishes Christianity from some other faiths. Unlike certain Eastern traditions, we don’t view our prayer life as an attempt to meditate ourselves out of an awareness of our physical lives. Christian prayer is very nearly the opposite of a kind of “transcendental meditation” by which you try to “transcend” your own thoughts and desires in order to enter some “other” realm on a plane far above all things typical and mundane.
We’ve all seen pictures of people practicing that kind of meditation–sitting on the floor with eyes closed and legs crossed, the goal is to empty your mind of the day’s troubles so as to center your consciousness elsewhere for a little while. I have no doubt that such meditation may be beneficial in some ways and certainly even we Christians want to pray in ways that focus us on our loving God. But once we are so focused, the “what” of our prayers goes right back to what happened in the office earlier in the day and how we need to make sure we can pay our bills this month.
But that’s because the God to whom we pray knows what we need. This is a God with eyes that are open and whose vision is utterly sharp. After all, when you worship a God whose eye is on the sparrow, who feeds the birds of the air, and who is clothing the flowers of the fields in a riot of colors, then you realize that your own prayers to this God are not meant to disconnect you from the world but to help you connect at a deeper level.
Jesus says that each day has enough trouble as it is. And we know what that trouble is. Sometimes it’s sheer busyness. Most households these days need flowcharts just to figure out who needs to be where and when. Especially parents of younger children live with the constant fear that they’re forgetting something. “Each day has enough trouble of its own” our Lord said. If ever there were a Bible verse to which we could all shout a full-throated “Amen!”, this is it. Life is full of distractions. Any given day is chock-full of what we deem to be “interruptions” to what we’d really rather be doing. But in Matthew 6, by telling us both that our heavenly Father sees us in these daily lives and by inviting us to pray about those same lives, Jesus asks us to look at even our distractions, even our interruptions, through new eyes. If this is the context in which, somehow or another, we are able to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, then that kingdom and that holy way of living is possible not by our breaking out of the routine but smack in the midst of it all.
In his commentary on this passage, Dale Bruner is at his lyric best when he invites us to see our daily actions as spiritual after all. On any given day we have to do the laundry, brush our child’s hair, attend committee meetings, spend time talking on the phone to someone whom we love just fine but whose call to us did not come at the most opportune moment we could think of. And so we start to think that surely a “spiritual” life must include better, other, more obviously pious acts than these. But perhaps not, Bruner says. When we do our work well, when we attend even the most routine of committee meetings, we are contributing to the functioning of God’s world and become, just so, agents of God’s providential care of society. When we talk with a friend on the phone, we may be providing love and compassion–a mercy that may be needed by this dear soul at that particular moment. Indeed, sometimes we are at our most Christ-like precisely in the interruptions that come. Maybe ministry is just generally what happens in life’s interrupted moments.
Taking time to brush my child’s hair may seem at times to take me away from more “important” matters, but what if I view it instead as a precious moment to be with my child, perhaps as one of the few times all day I’ll get to touch him and look at him. Maybe the reason we are told that God has the hairs of our heads numbered is because God takes joy in being able to stare at our heads with the tender affection of a Father for his child. When God “brushes” our hair, he does so lovingly, counting the hairs as he goes and delighting in just being with us. “Seek first the kingdom,” Jesus said. But we don’t need to go looking for that reign of God–it is already present in the most ordinary things we do if only we do them in the Name of Christ.
The word in verse 34 that Jesus uses is the Greek term kakia, which means “badness” or “faultiness.” But kakia is not as strong a term as was used earlier in this chapter in the Lord’s Prayer when Jesus spoke the line “deliver us from evil.” Truly Satanic-like “evil” in the New Testament is summed up in the Greek word porneia. So the “badness” that Jesus says today has enough of already does not rise to the level of grave evil, but even kakia does nonetheless tie in with the larger issues in this world that make life difficult and troubling at times.
N.T. Wright says that at its essence, prayer is not about some selfish pursuit of spiritual advancement or a method to get in touch with our deepest feelings. Prayer is not a flight out of a troubling world but is finally the posture of kneeling before the Creator God from the midst of a painful world. In the Name of Jesus, we bring the pain of the world to the Lord of the world and, in the light of Jesus’ victory on the cross, we then dare to call God “Our Father.”
Acknowledging God as Father is not just the place where we begin prayer–it is also the goal toward which we are moving. We call God “Our Father in heaven” and then spend the rest of our lives coming to realize what that means. As the old adage has it, at the end of all our striving, we arrive back where we began and come to know the place as for the first time.
Prayer is a kind of journey but not a journey out of the world and into the kingdom. Rather, it is a journey deeper into this world and all its troubles and distractions; a journey deeper into the lives we’ve been given so that we may see the hidden reality of the kingdom that is ever with us. “Each day has enough trouble of its own,” Jesus said. That’s why we pray. But in so praying, we find another truth: each day has a lot of the kingdom in it, too. When we view life that way, we won’t worry about tomorrow. We will be too busy rejoicing in what God has already given today.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Isaiah talked to people who wondered if anything was stable in the world. Like any number of people in our world at any given moment, so the Israelites of Isaiah’s day found themselves going through hard times in a world where the unexpected had become normal.
Their country had been wiped out by the Babylonians. Everything that had once been familiar had been burned down, tossed out, trampled on, trashed. Now they were slaves and they wondered if a better day would ever come. Some people wondered if there even was a God. A few others said that yes, God was real all right but he was weak and so lacked enough power to make a difference. Still others said that yes, God was real and yes, he did have enough power to save them if he wanted to–the problem is that they were convinced he did not want to! “Maybe God just doesn’t care,” they said to one another.
But starting in Isaiah 40 Isaiah promised that God was going to redeem them. So also in verse 13 of this 49th chapter the prophet dances and sings in front of the people, saying, “Let’s celebrate because God is bringing comfort to us!” But then comes verse 14 in which the people reply, “Yeah, right! Can’t you see our situation, Rev. Isaiah? I mean, Duh! God has forgotten all about us!”
They felt cut off, without roots. Their world had changed too quickly and there didn’t seem to be anything firm to grab hold of or believe in anymore. Nobody can guarantee that bad things won’t happen. That’s basically what the Israelites said back to Isaiah, but God was ready with an answer. Not only was God able to do great things for the people, he desperately wanted to do those great things. So in verse 15 God says, “Can a mother forget about the child she carried around in her womb for nine months and nursed at her very breast?”
Can a mother forget the child at her breast? As God goes on to admit in verse 15, yes, unhappily enough, some mothers can and do. But God our heavenly Father and Mother, our divine Parent, is better than any human being ever could be! Even if a mother were to fail at the most tender relationship in all of life, God will never let us down. He has your name tattooed right on the palm of his hand! Maybe that image doesn’t sound like much. After all, for lots of people the only time we write something on our palms is if we don’t have a piece of paper available and so scribble somebody’s phone number or email address onto our hand. We’ll wash it off later, but for the time being writing it there is, well, handy!
But this image had a very wonderful meaning in Isaiah’s day. Back then servants and slaves would be tattooed with their owner’s name. If you were a slave, the name of the person who owned you would be carved into your palm, kind of like the way cattle are branded with the logo of their ranch. That way you could never forget that you were not your own but were somebody else’s property. Once in a while today you may still encounter a Jew who has a series of numbers tattooed onto his or her arm. When you see that, you realize that this was someone who was once a prisoner at Auschwitz or Buchenwald–the Nazis tattooed i.d. numbers right into their flesh as a reminder that they were owned like a piece of property.
So how stunningly amazing that in Isaiah 49 God turns the tables and says, “I’m going to become your servant! I belong to you and to prove it, your name is tattooed onto my hands! I cannot go anywhere or do anything without remembering you, seeing your name, and so caring for your well-being.”
And this, of course, can lead us to Christ. Because Jesus is indeed the very Son of God who humbly took on the role of a servant. He was born poor. He was treated like a sinner even though he was the only one who never sinned. He was rejected by the very creation he helped to make once upon a universe. He was rubbed out atop a garbage heap, impaled between two lowlifes and seen as a lowlife in his own right.
Jesus has got nail holes and sword holes and thorn pricks and whip marks all over him now because he is absolutely determined to let all of us know that he has our names written into his very flesh. He’ll never forget!
In one of his fine sermons, Frederick Buechner relays a dream he once had. In this dream he was staying at a nice hotel somewhere and he had a room in this hotel that he just loved. He loved being in the room for some unknown reason. It brought him a feeling of contentment and peace and joy just to be in the room. But then the dream meandered a bit, as dreams do, and suddenly he was in another hotel and in a different room that he did not like nearly so well. So he picks his way back to the first hotel and asks the clerk for his old room back. He can’t tell the clerk which room it was but if the man could check his ledger and tell him what room he had had before, he’d like to have that room again. “Certainly I can tell you which room that was, Mr. Buechner,” the dream clerk said, “It was the room called ‘Remember.'”
And that revelation in his dream was so startling that Buechner says he woke up and sat bolt upright in bed. The room he wanted was the room called Remember. Maybe it’s the room we all want, the place to which we wish to journey again and again, the place where we can remember all things even as we are ourselves remembered by the God whose memory means life itself. And maybe among the most important things we each of us could remember–the one thing common to all of us despite our many uncommon stories–is this: when we look back in remembrance, we realize that though most of the time we failed to see it, we were never really alone. Not in life’s dungeons, not in life’s sunny times, not ever. We would never have made it this far were it not for Him whose presence is as everlasting as his chesed and whose memory of all things is itself life, hope, and joy. “See, I have engraved you on my palms” God tells the Israelites through Isaiah.
He remembers us.